Girl 43 was originally published in 2001 by Virago, an imprint of Little,Brown, London, as Invisible Thread. It was republished by Hachette Australia with the new title Girl 43 in 2014, following the controversial government apologies in Australia by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to the Forgotten Australians, and Julia Gillard, to the victims of forced adoption.
Before Invisible Thread was published there had been little publicity about the events described in the novel. In that regard the book was ahead of its time. No one knew what had gone on at Parramatta Girls’ Home and other similar care homes for children in Australia. And no one cared. The general opinion was that Parramatta girls, and anyone else in a youth detention centre, deserved to be punished. And that was that. At the time of the events in the book there were more than 800 children’s homes in Australia. That is an astonishing number for such a young country with a small population. Parramatta and its sister home, the Hay Institution for Girls, were the most notorious institutions for girls. Not for the violence that went undetected in the homes, but for the reputation they had as places where “bad girls” were incarcerated. But history has a way of exposing itself, and piece by piece, story by story, the truth has finally been told. Parramatta and Hay were havens for bullies and sadists. Like many similar large institutions, it is all too easy for staff to get away with abuse, rape and mental torture, while maintaining and projecting a “caring” and “professional” image.
The unprecedented scale of abuse has gradually been revealed through the media and the Royal Commission Inquiry. Thousands of children lost their childhood, their youth, their spirit in these Homes. The repercussions are far reaching. Families, friends, the community, have all been affected. Drug addiction, suicide, depression, alcoholism, divorce, self-harm, eating disorders, are common among those who passed through these Homes and still survive today. Many suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Many have poor health, and lost their chance of an education. They have struggled to find work and survive financially. The fall out from being detained, incarcerated and brutalised at Parramatta or Hay is still being felt today. Likewise, any child who grew up in a care Home has lived with the stigma of being unwanted, abandoned, shut away and ignored by their family. Instead of the government Apology to the Forgotten Australians and the Royal Commission healing the pain, it has in so many cases, opened old wounds and created more suffering.
Australia was founded on detaining people and to this day it is a nation with a shameful history of locking up anyone “inconvenient.” For a modern, thriving nation that prides itself on democracy, it is a history that is shocking. The sheer numbers of children locked up in these institutions was staggering. Many went on to lead a life of crime, in particular many of the boys incarcerated at the Institution for Boys in Tamworth. We as a nation must never forget that boys were also abused and that it is sexist to assume they could endure severe punishment and torture more than a girl. All of the children who passed through these institutions were born innocent and became victims of circumstances and family background. The boys at Tamworth were subjected to indescribable cruelty and as a result many became hardened criminals. We must ask ourselves: Is that the life they wanted?
Girl 43 was inspired by the author’s own experience in Parramatta Girls’ Home in 1970, when Australia’s first Summer of Love turned out to be the Summer from Hell. Names were changed in the book to protect the innocent, and the author. The real name of the Home was changed to Gunyah, to protect the author from legal and personal repercussions. Gunyah is an Aboriginal word for a humpy, or shelter.
“Parramatta Girls’ Home was far from being a shelter for young girls, rather, it was a haven for bullies and sadists employed and endorsed by the state. They were given carte blanche to run the home as they saw fit. The daily regime was punitive, intimidating and terrifying. We may never know if any of the girls died while in detention there, but we do know that thousands were beaten and mentally tortured. Many later committed suicide. We all hope that lessons have been learned from past mistakes, and that no child will ever have to endure the pain of such unspeakable cruelty and incarceration again. But this year more reports of abuse in children’s homes across the UK have come to light. As for forced adoption, in the UK at least, it is at an all-time high. Anyone who reads this story and dismisses it as unimportant must search their soul and face the truth of Australia’s dark history. Yes, it is a tough subject and difficult to read. But it is my truth.”
Girl 43 – the story
Sydney, Australia 1970
The graffiti on the holding room wall says it all: ‘Gunyah is hell on earth’. And Ellen’s about to find out why. After defying her parents and hitchhiking with a friend to Australia’s first music festival, Pilgrimage for Pop at Ourimbah, on the New South Wales central coast, Ellen meets and falls in love with Robbie.
Instead of going home to face her parents after the festival, Ellen moves in with Robbie at his Earl’s Court room in Manly and starts looking for work. She’s relieved to be away from her abusive step-father, and her mother, who wants her to do as she’s told. They’re from a different era. They don’t understand pop music, hippy culture, drugs. And they definitely don’t understand free love. Doing what she’s told means not going out with her friends. It means staying home on her own at night and on weekends, while her parents are out. She’s in love with Robbie and looking forward to the future.
Ellen was never the daughter her mother wanted. Patent leather shoes and frilly dresses just weren’t her thing. She grew tired of sitting in the car while her parents were socialising at the yacht club. She hated all the arguments, the lack of understanding and communication, the lack of love from her step-father, the criticism and unreasonable expectations. She’s ready to find her own way. But her parents have other ideas about the life they want for her. When the police turn up at Earl’s Court looking for her, Ellen is arrested and charged with being in ‘moral danger.’
The magistrate at the Children’s Court in Sydney has no patience for young girls like Ellen. He sentences her to the infamous Gunyah Training School for Girls. It is a defining and gut-wrenching moment, as Ellen’s world is torn apart. She feels her soul “splitting in half.’ The officers at Gunyah are terrifying. Stripped of her name, her possessions, her hair, and her dignity, she is given a number: 43. Gunyah is harsh and the staff are cruel and sadistic. Anyone who speaks out of turn is punished. It doesn’t take much to invite severe punishment, like being thrown in the dungeons and beaten, or scrubbing concrete all night on bare knees until they bleed. Ellen tries hard to follow the rules, work hard and – most importantly – keep to herself. She instinctively knows that the quickest way to being released is to behave herself. But when the staff discover she’s writing poetry, they make her life miserable. Then they find out she is pregnant, and there’s no respite. Told she isn’t capable of bringing up a child, they twist the truth to make her cooperate and give up her baby for a thriving adoption market. She is told she’s a slut and is being selfish. When her baby is born the hospital staff steal her newborn baby and remove her to a secret location. Ellen’s life is changed forever. The grief is overwhelming. But however hard they try, they can’t destroy the invisible thread between a mother and her child . . .
Drawn from experiences in Parramatta Girls’ Home in the seventies, including the author’s, Girl 43 is a story that could have come straight from today’s headlines, about the shocking treatment of innocent children and teens by people in the very institutions that were supposed to protect and care for them.
Hay Institution for Girls
Image – ABC
I know what democracy is. It means living in a fair society, where you have free thought, equality and the right to live however you want – so long as it’s okay with everyone else, especially the law.
I know because I looked it up in a dictionary. This girl with sly eyes and sores on her face said it to me when I was put away.
‘It’s not democratic, this place,’ she whispered, stabbing her porridge with her spoon.
I didn’t have a clue what she was on about, but I didn’t want to look like a dummy by asking. And I was frightened one of the officers might notice and punish me. Talking wasn’t allowed in the dining hall.
I kept the word in my head for three days, till library session.
There’s a girl in the next bed crying.
She’s got untidy blonde hair. I know she is crying, because her shoulders judder and now and then she whimpers. I’m used to seeing girls cry. We all do it, in here.
The room I am in shimmers like oil in a puddle, black and purple swirls. I rub my eyes, they are sandy and raw; this makes them even worse, sending tears across my temples to settle in pools in my ears.
I close my eyes to stop the stinging. My head is throbbing, my limbs ache, my memory is blank.
After a while I open my eyes again, blinking. I lift my head; it hurts, like it did that time when me and Louise drank some of Mum’s whiskey. I drop my head on to the pillow. God, what’s wrong with me?
(C) Maree Giles 2017